Coach Art Briles has turned Baylor, that little private school in Waco, Texas, into one of the nation's powerhouse programs. Can the Bears take that final step and play for a national title in 2015? We examine with 5Dimes odds.
Briles A Miracle Worker
I'm surprised an NFL team hasn't snapped Briles up yet, although he's all Texas at heart and perhaps is happy where he is. Baylor has upgraded its facilities in recent years and Briles got a huge new extension through 2023 two years ago. Still, you might hear rumors of the Washington Redskins sniffing around Briles again if they struggle this season. Reports are they were before hiring Jay Gruden before last season. Of course Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy playing for Baylor in 2011.
The program is having the best stretch in school history, but the past two seasons have ended in disappointment. In 2013, the Bears won the Big 12 title with a regular-season closing win over Texas. They took an 11-2 record into the Fiesta Bowl and were huge favorites over Central Florida but lost 52-42. That was Baylor's first-ever 11-win season and their first outright title in any league since winning the Southwest Conference on 1980 when a guy named Mike Singletary played defense for the Bears.
Last season, Baylor shared the Big 12 title with TCU; and in reality the conference not having a conference championship game cost both clubs a spot in the College Football Playoff. Really Baylor should have been declared the champion because it beat the Horned Frogs in the regular season. The Big 12 will have "One True Champion" going forward. The Bears again took an 11-2 record into a major bowl game but were beaten 42-41 by Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. That was one of the best bowl games of last season as Sparty trailed 41-21 entering the fourth and won it on a 10-yard TD pass with 10 seconds left.
Briles brings back 17 starters off that team, tied for the most in the Big 12. Star quarterback Bryce Petty has moved on to the NFL, but his replacement, Seth Russell, looked very good when Petty was hurt for a bit last season. In limited opportunity, Russell threw for over 800 yards and eight scores. He's +4000 to win the Heisman. Frankly, I think Briles' up-tempo spread system makes the QB at Baylor and not the other way around. Baylor brings back some of the best skill position talent in NCAA football. Running back Shock Linwood, who rushed for 1,252 yards and 16 scores last season, returns. So do receivers Corey Coleman and KD Cannon, who combined for 122 catches for 2,149 yards and 19 TDs in 2014.
Defensively, Baylor brings back a monster in first-team All-Big 12 end Shawn Oakman, a future NFL first-round pick. Oakman set the single-season school record for sacks (11.0) and was just shy of another record with 19.5 tackles for a loss. He could be the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft.
At Big 12 Media Days, Baylor was picked to finish second in the conference to TCU.
Breaking Down Schedule
Part of me hopes Baylor runs the table this season yet misses out on the College Football Playoff. I have no beef with the school and the Bears are really fun to watch, but their non-conference schedule is ridiculous. Last year it was SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. All blowouts as expected. This year it's SMU, Lamar and Rice. Come on! The Bears have opened as 33.5-point favorites against the Mustangs, whom they beat 45-0 last season.
The Big 12 opener is against Texas Tech in Arlington. Baylor opened as a 16-point favorite. The total in that one could be north of 80. Baylor won last season 48-46 as the Red Raiders failed on a late 2-point conversion. Petty left that game in the third quarter with a concussion.
The first time Baylor leaves Texas is Oct. 10 at Kansas and that shouldn't be close. It was 60-14 in 2014. Then it's back-to-back home games against West Virginia (opened at +17), which upset the Bears last season in Morgantown, and Iowa State (TBA). Thus I have no doubt Baylor will be 7-0 when it visits Kansas State on Nov. 5. The Bears are -12 and won 38-27 last season.
K-State is the start of a tough ending stretch. Baylor then hosts Oklahoma (+11), visits Oklahoma State (+8), visits TCU (-6) in the Big 12 Game of the Year and closes at home vs. Texas (TBA).
NCAAF Free Picks: Baylor is +2500 to win the national title, +250 second-favorite to win the Big 12, +425 to make the four-team playoff, -180 to play in a New Year's Six bowl and has a wins total of 10, with 'over' a -130 favorite. I like Baylor to win the Big 12 and play in the College Football Playoff. Go 'over' the wins as Baylor will finish the regular season at 11-1.